ONE-HIT OR MISS: IS A FREQUENCY OF ONE FREQUENTLY WRONG?

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The age-old question of "how much advertising frequency is enough?" has just been answered .*.*. again. In his book "When Ads Work" Professor John Philip Jones states that all you need is a frequency of one.

Intrigued by the notion of saving millions of dollars by cutting back advertising, might advertisers be taking an action that could be dead wrong?

Before slashing their ad budgets, advertisers should consider these points:

1. Weekly delivery. Conceivably mislead-ing, but reach/frequency is often tabulated for a 4-week period. Keep in mind that Jones suggests one hit each week, with continuity through the year. This equates to a 4.0 frequency over 4 weeks, for as many weeks as are affordable.

2. Diminishing returns. For nearly all products there is a "magic range" of advertising pressure below which the sales effect is minimal, and above which advertising simply does not pay out. The same happens with reach and frequency. As more and more TV spots air, it's likely that some people will see more than one commercial. As more spots air, the rate of reach accumulation decreases and the rate of frequency increases. It's unavoidable.

All advertisers would like to spend less, not more. But more advertising is sometimes the price that must be paid to garner higher levels of brand awareness, or keep current buyers from brand-switching, or attempt to attract new buy-ers, or increase share of market, and so forth.

3. Motivation. Jones concentrated on package goods brands. Generally speaking, the consumer does not need to be motivated to buy cereal, simply to be sold on buying a particular brand. This is distinctly different from the challenge faced by other kinds of advertisers where the consumer must first be sold on the idea of doing something, then on the idea of buying a particular product, e.g., exercising, then buying a HealthRider. Seems reasonable that more than one hit is needed for these other advertisers.

4. Purchase cycle. The periodicity with which consumers buy something should affect how much frequency is needed to affect their decisions. A low level of weekly frequency combined with continuity might be right for a product that is purchased every week or so, but not necessarily right for a product that is purchased with greater intervals between purchases.

5. Purchase decision. People think harder and longer about buying a high-ticket item. During this consideration period a "reminder" commercial or two makes sense. Had we reached this consumer only once we could have conceivably lost the sale.

6. Average? Jones' research is for the average brand. One must question if any single brand is average. As with all research, averages could mislead. Remember the one about the guy who drowned in a lake that had an average depth of 3 feet?

7. Message complexity. It's logical that a simple message could be understood after one exposure. But will a complex or multi-copypoint commercial fare well after only one hit?

8. Commercial effectiveness/memorability. According to recall tests, some commercials are more effective than others. A highly effective/memorable commercial, regardless of its complexity, might live with one hit. But are more hits needed for a less effective commercial?

9. Commercial length. If a 10- or 15-second commercial has a lower recall score than its :30 counterpart, is more than one hit needed? Could a :60 suffice with less than one hit per week?

10. Time of day/attention levels. An advertiser that disperses commercials across multiple dayparts needs to question if one hit could apply to all dayparts. One commercial exposure has a better chance of being effective if viewed late at night than in the morning-because attention levels are higher at night. Should there be a two-hit strategy for the morning and a one-hit strategy for nighttime?

11. Pragmatism. It's unrealistic to assume that a media schedule could be purchased to achieve only a one frequency. The only way to accomplish this is to buy only one TV program, or a combination of only a few programs that have no duplicated audiences. Either of these tactics would substantially diminish reach.

12. Your competitor is watching. OK. After considering all of the above, you determined that one hit is all you need. You've added some weeks to your ad schedule, maybe even saved some money. But your competitor has not followed suit. Will you be out-gunned? Will consumers be influenced more by your competitor because they "see" more advertising?

Our hat's off to Jones and all researchers who have advanced our understanding of advertising frequency. But three questions will continue to haunt us for years to come, and perhaps never be adequately answered: How long is a piece of string? How high is up? How much frequency is enough?

Mr. Surmanek is senior VP and general manager of the Chicago office of International Communications Group, an independent media planning and buying company.

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